By Joe Callaghan, New York
The Mecca has been in the market for a new prophet for a while now.
Madison Square Garden may be one of the most iconic venues on the planet but on the sporting front, things have been a little too quiet for a little too long down on 31st Street.
The hallowed hall is home to two of the more storied sports franchises Stateside, the NBA’s Knicks and the Rangers of the NHL.
The stories, however, have been of the hard luck variety for quite some time, the Rangers last raising a Stanley Cup 22 years ago while the Knicks’ drought goes back a generation to 1973.
Lately, primetime boxing has migrated away from Midtown too. A place that had had its rafters rattled by Duran and Holyfield and Gatti and Ali and Frazier’s Fight of the Century has been left behind as prizefighting largely migrated across the bridge to Brooklyn’s Barclays Centre. All in all, the residency of Billy Joel has been looking to have its fires restarted.
Enter sport’s most incendiary presence right about now.
It could only have been Conor McGregor. Once New York state legislators ended 20 years of stubborn resistance and legalised mixed martial arts in the jurisdiction earlier this year, it was always going to fall to the Notorious one to show the place what they’ve been missing.
The UFC wanted their maiden mission to Manhattan to be a wow moment, McGregor has done a little of his best and a lot of his worst to ensure that it is he who provides it.
A week of striving to drum up the hype machine in an America dumbfounded by its own decision-making came to a head on Thursday.
At the final pre-fight press conference for UFC 205, where he meets Eddie Alvarez in the main event, McGregor jived in and up on stage 20 minutes late and turned in a performance that would have qualified as a pretty close parody of the fighter who has electrified worldwide audiences over the past three years.
In new territory, he returned to his old tricks and they felt more than a little tired.
Thieving opponent’s titles, disparaging the rest of the sport, insults and expletives, a manufactured fracas using whatever prop came closest to hand, it was a medley of everything we’d seen before but left you wondering if the showman is in danger of running out of lines just when he hits his biggest stage of all.
Yes much of the crowd were lapping it up and yes over 12,000 people turned out yesterday just to see him step up on a scales and yes the Garden’s attendance record is on course to be broken tonight but on the eve of what could be his finest hour, Thursday’s theatrics were 15 flat minutes.
This is not to paint McGregor as a fighting “I-didn’t-do-it” boy. When it was quicker than his fists, his wit could be quite brilliant. It could be again.
In the meantime, he will get back to talking with those limbs tonight. The opportunity to be ordained the new spiritual leader of the Garden is there for the Dubliner, a historic feat well within reach.
As the reigning featherweight title-holder, he meets Alvarez in a champion-vs-champion clash - the first in the UFC since 2009 - that could well be mouthwatering.
With lightweight silverware on the line, victory would make McGregor the first UFC fighter to reign over two divisions simultaneously.
There are three title fights on the organisation’s stacked first Big Apple card but McGregor’s tilt at history, in his first UFC fight at the 155lb level, is the storyline that dominates all else.
“I’m immortalised when I get the second belt and raise it up,” he said during the week. “It’s never been done before. It means absolutely everything to me, it’s my life’s work.”
Alvarez’s life has been marked by no little hard work either. The Philadelphia native is a well-travelled veteran whose skills have won over crowds in Asia, the US and beyond. Not as spectacular as the Notorious one, he is arguably steadier.
The 32-year-old has impressed throughout the build-up, his laid-back temperament a calming contrast to McGregor’s histrionics. Alvarez fears that a week that has left his homeland deeply unsettled is about to end on a similar note.
“I feel like I’m about to tell the whole world that there’s no Santa Claus,” said Alvarez, who claimed the lightweight title in July from Rafael Dos Anjos, who McGregor had been scheduled to fight in March before injury intervened.
“Everybody is going to be disappointed. [McGregor’s stature] is a lie and I’m gonna steal the magic from everyone.”
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